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Chapter IV. Ezekiel's Prophetic Commission. Chapters ii., iii.

The call of a prophet and the vision of God which sometimes accompanied it are the two sides of one complex experience. The man who has truly seen God necessarily has a message to men. Not only are his spiritual perceptions quickened and all the powers of his being stirred to the highest activity, but there is laid on his conscience the burden of a sacred duty and a lifelong vocation to the service of God and man. The true prophet therefore is one who can say with Paul, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision,” for that cannot be a real vision of God which does not demand obedience. And of the two elements the call is the one that is indispensable to the idea of a prophet. We can conceive a prophet without an ecstatic vision, but not without a consciousness of being chosen by God for a special work or a sense of moral responsibility for the faithful declaration of His truth. Whether, as with Isaiah and Ezekiel, the call springs out of the vision of God, or whether, as with Jeremiah, the call comes first and is supplemented by experiences of a visionary kind, the essential fact in the prophet's initiation always is the conviction that from a certain period in his life the word of Jehovah came to him, and along with it the feeling of personal obligation to God for the discharge of a mission entrusted to him. While the vision merely serves to 043 impress on the imagination by means of symbols a certain conception of God's being, and may be dispensed with when symbols are no longer the necessary vehicle of spiritual truth, the call, as conveying a sense of one's true place in the kingdom of God, can never be wanting to any man who has a prophetic work to do for God amongst his fellow-men.

It has been already hinted that in the case of Ezekiel the connection between the call and the vision is less obvious than in that of Isaiah. The character of the narrative undergoes a change at the beginning of ch. ii. The first part is moulded, as we have seen, very largely on the inaugural vision of Isaiah; the second betrays with equal clearness the influence of Jeremiah. The appearance of a break between the first chapter and the second is partly due to the prophet's laborious manner of describing what he had passed through. It is altogether unfair to represent him as having first curiously inspected the mechanism of the merkābā, and then bethought himself that it was a fitting thing to fall on his face before it. The experience of an ecstasy is one thing, the relating of it is another. In much less time than it takes us to master the details of the picture, Ezekiel had seen and been overpowered by the glory of Jehovah, and had become aware of the purpose for which it had been revealed to him. He knew that God had come to him in order to send him as a prophet to his fellow-exiles. And just as the description of the vision draws out in detail those features which were significant of God's nature and attributes, so in what follows he becomes conscious step by step of certain aspects of the work to which he is called. In the form of a series of addresses of the Almighty there are presented to his mind the outlines of his prophetic career—its conditions, its hardships, its encouragements, and above all its binding and peremptory 044 obligation. Some of the facts now set before him, such as the spiritual condition of his audience, had long been familiar to his thoughts—others were new; but now they all take their proper place in the scheme of his life; he is made to know their bearing on his work, and what attitude he is to adopt in face of them. All this takes place in the prophetic trance; but the ideas remain with him as the sustaining principles of his subsequent work.

1. Of the truths thus presented to the mind of Ezekiel the first, and the one that directly arises out of the impression which the vision made on him, is his personal insignificance. As he lies prostrate before the glory of Jehovah he hears for the first time the name which ever afterwards signalises his relation to the God who speaks through him. It hardly needs to be said that the term “son of man” in the book of Ezekiel is no title of honour or of distinction. It is precisely the opposite of this. It denotes the absence of distinction in the person of the prophet. It signifies no more than “member of the human race”; its sense might almost be conveyed if we were to render it by the word “mortal.” It expresses the infinite contrast between the heavenly and the earthly, between the glorious Being who speaks from the throne and the frail creature who needs to be supernaturally strengthened before he can stand upright in the attitude of service (ch. ii. 1). He felt that there was no reason in himself for the choice which God made of him to be a prophet. He is conscious only of the attributes which he has in common with the race—of human weakness and insignificance; all that distinguishes him from other men belongs to his office, and is conferred on him by God in the act of his consecration. There is no trace of the generous impulse that prompted Isaiah to offer himself as a servant of the great King as soon as he realised that there was work to be done. He is equally a stranger 045 to the shrinking of Jeremiah's sensitive spirit from the responsibilities of the prophet's charge. To Ezekiel the divine Presence is so overpowering, the command is so definite and exacting, that no room is left for the play of personal feeling; the hand of the Lord is heavy on him, and he can do nothing but stand still and hear.

2. The next thought that occupies the attention of the prophet is the spiritual condition of those to whom he is sent. It is to be noted that his mission presents itself to him from the outset in two aspects. In the first place, he is a prophet to the whole house of Israel, including the lost kingdom of the ten tribes, as well as the two sections of the kingdom of Judah, those now in exile and those still remaining in their own land. This is his ideal audience; the sweep of his prophecy is to embrace the destinies of the nation as a whole, although but a small part be within the reach of his spoken words. But in literal fact he is to be the prophet of the exiles (ch. iii. 11); that is the sphere in which he has to make proof of his ministry. These two audiences are for the most part not distinguished in the mind of Ezekiel; he sees the ideal in the real, regarding the little colony in which he lives as an epitome of the national life. But in both aspects of his work the outlook is equally dispiriting. If he looks forward to an active career amongst his fellow-captives, he is given to know that “thorns and thistles” are with him and that his dwelling is among scorpions (ch. ii. 6). Petty persecution and rancorous opposition are the inevitable lot of a prophet there. And if he extends his thoughts to the idealised nation he has to think of a people whose character is revealed in a long history of rebellion and apostasy: they are “the rebels who have rebelled against Me, they and their fathers to this very day” (ch. ii. 3). The greatest difficulty he will have to contend with is the impenetrability of the minds of his hearers 046 to the truths of his message. The barrier of a strange language suggests an illustration of the impossibility of communicating spiritual ideas to such men as he is sent to. But it is a far more hopeless barrier that separates him from his people. “Not to a people of deep speech and heavy tongue art thou sent; and not to many peoples whose language thou canst not understand: if I had sent thee to them, they would hear thee. But the house of Israel will refuse to hear thee; for they refuse to hear Me: for the whole house of Israel are hard of forehead and stout of heart” (ch. iii. 5-7). The meaning is that the incapacity of the people is not intellectual, but moral and spiritual. They can understand the prophet's words, but they will not hear them because they dislike the truth which he utters and have rebelled against the God who sent him. The hardening of the national conscience which Isaiah foresaw as the inevitable result of his own ministry is already accomplished, and Ezekiel traces it to its source in a defect of the will, an aversion to the truths which express the character of Jehovah.

This fixed judgment on his contemporaries with which Ezekiel enters on his work is condensed into one of those stereotyped expressions which abound in his writings: “house of disobedience”1111   Bêth mĕri, or simply mĕrî, occurring about fifteen times in the first half of the book, but only once after ch. xxiv.—a phrase which is afterwards amplified in more than one elaborate review of the nation's past. It no doubt sums up the result of much previous meditation on the state of Israel and the possibility of a national reformation. If any hope had hitherto lingered in Ezekiel's mind that the exiles might now respond to a true word from Jehovah, it disappears in the clear insight which he obtains into the state of their hearts. He sees that the time has not yet come to win the people 047 back to God by assurances of His compassion and the nearness of His salvation. The breach between Jehovah and Israel has not begun to be healed, and the prophet who stands on the side of God must look for no sympathy from men. In the very act of his consecration his mind is thus set in the attitude of uncompromising severity towards the obdurate house of Israel: “Behold, I make thy face hard like their faces, and thy forehead hard like theirs, like adamant harder than flint. Thou shalt not fear them nor be dismayed at their countenance, for a disobedient house are they” (ch. iii. 8, 9).

3. The significance of the transaction in which he takes part is still further impressed on the mind of the prophet by a symbolic act in which he is made to signify his acceptance of the commission entrusted to him (chs. ii. 8-iii. 3). He sees a hand extended to him holding the roll of a book, and when the roll is spread out before him it is found to be written on both sides with “lamentations and mourning and woe.” In obedience to the divine command he opens his mouth and eats the scroll, and finds to his surprise that in spite of its contents its taste is “like honey for sweetness.”

The meaning of this strange symbol appears to include two things. In the first place it denotes the removal of the inward hindrance of which every man must be conscious when he receives the call to be a prophet. Something similar occurs in the inaugural vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah. The impediment of which Isaiah was conscious was the uncleanness of his lips; and this being removed by the touch of the hot coal from the altar, he is filled with a new feeling of freedom and eagerness to engage in the service of God. In the case of Jeremiah the hindrance was a sense of his own weakness and unfitness for the arduous duties which were imposed on him; and this again was taken away 048 by the consecrating touch of Jehovah's hand on his lips. The part of Ezekiel's experience with which we are dealing is obviously parallel to these, although it is not possible to say what feeling of incapacity was uppermost in his mind. Perhaps it was the dread lest in him there should lurk something of that rebellious spirit which was the characteristic of the race to which he belonged. He who had been led to form so hard a judgment of his people could not but look with a jealous eye on his own heart, and could not forget that he shared the same sinful nature which made their rebellion possible. Accordingly the book is presented to him in the first instance as a test of his obedience. “But thou, son of man, hear what I say to thee; Be not disobedient like the disobedient house: open thy mouth, and eat what I give thee” (ch. ii. 8). When the book proves sweet to his taste, he has the assurance that he has been endowed with such sympathy with the thoughts of God that things which to the natural mind are unwelcome become the source of a spiritual satisfaction. Jeremiah had expressed the same strange delight in his work in a striking passage which was doubtless familiar to Ezekiel: “When Thy words were found I did eat them; and Thy word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart: for I was called by Thy name, O Jehovah God of hosts” (Jer. xv. 16). We have a still higher illustration of the same fact in the life of our Lord, to whom it was meat and drink to do the will of His Father, and who experienced a joy in the doing of it which was peculiarly His own. It is the reward of the true service of God that amidst all the hardships and discouragements which have to be endured the heart is sustained by an inward joy springing from the consciousness of working in fellowship with God.

But in the second place the eating of the book undoubtedly signifies the bestowal on the prophet of the 049 gift of inspiration—that is, the power to speak the words of Jehovah. “Son of man, eat this roll, and go speak to the children of Israel.... Go, get thee to the house of Israel, and speak with My words to them” (ch. iii. 1, 4). Now the call of a prophet does not mean that his mind is charged with a certain body of doctrine, which he is to deliver from time to time as circumstances require. All that can safely be said about the prophetic inspiration is that it implies the faculty of distinguishing the truth of God from the thoughts that naturally arise in the prophet's own mind. Nor is there anything in Ezekiel's experience which necessarily goes beyond this conception; although the incident of the book has been interpreted in ways that burden him with a very crude and mechanical theory of inspiration. Some critics have believed that the book which he swallowed is the book he was afterwards to write, as if he had reproduced in instalments what was delivered to him at this time. Others, without going so far as this, find it at least significant that one who was to be pre-eminently a literary prophet should conceive of the word of the Lord as communicated to him in the form of a book. When one writer speaks of “eigenthümliche Empfindungen im Schlunde”1212   Klostermann. as the basis of the figure, he seems to come perilously near to resolving inspiration into a nervous disease. All these representations go beyond a fair construction of the prophet's meaning. The act is purely symbolic. The book has nothing to do with the subject-matter of his prophecy, nor does the eating of it mean anything more than the self-surrender of the prophet to his vocation as a vehicle of the word of Jehovah. The idea that the word of God becomes a living power in the inner being of the prophet is also expressed by Jeremiah when he speaks of it as a 050 “burning fire shut up in his bones” (Jer. xx. 9); and Ezekiel's conception is similar. Although he speaks as if he had once for all assimilated the word of God, although he was conscious of a new power working within him, there is no proof that he thought of the word of the Lord as dwelling in him otherwise than as a spiritual impulse to utter the truth revealed to him from time to time. That is the inspiration which all the prophets possess: “Jehovah God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos iii. 8).

4. It was not to be expected that a prophet so practical in his aims as Ezekiel should be left altogether without some indication of the end to be accomplished by his work. The ordinary incentives to an arduous public career have indeed been denied to him. He knows that his mission contains no promise of a striking or an immediate success, that he will be misjudged and opposed by nearly all who hear him, and that he will have to pursue his course without appreciation or sympathy. It has been impressed on him that to declare God's message is an end in itself, a duty to be discharged with no regard to its issues, “whether men hear or whether they forbear.” Like Paul he recognises that “necessity is laid upon him” to preach the word of God. But there is one word which reveals to him the way in which his ministry is to be made effective in the working out of Jehovah's purpose with Israel. “Whether they hear or whether they forbear, they shall know that a prophet hath been among them” (ii. 5). The reference is mainly to the destruction of the nation which Ezekiel well knew must form the chief burden of any true prophetic message delivered at that time. He will be approved as a prophet, and recognised as what he is, when his words are verified by the event. Does it seem a poor reward for years of incessant contention with prejudice and unbelief? It was at all events the only reward that was possible, but it was also to 051 be the beginning of better days. For these words have a wider significance than their bearing on the prophet's personal position.

It has been truly said that the preservation of the true religion after the downfall of the nation depended on the fact that the event had been clearly foretold. Two religions and two conceptions of God were then struggling for the mastery in Israel. One was the religion of the prophets, who set the moral holiness of Jehovah above every other consideration, and affirmed that His righteousness must be vindicated even at the cost of His people's destruction. The other was the popular religion which clung to the belief that Jehovah could not for any reason abandon His people without ceasing to be God. This conflict of principles reached its climax in the time of Ezekiel, and it also found its solution. The destruction of Jerusalem cleared the issues. It was then seen that the teaching of the prophets afforded the only possible explanation of the course of events. The Jehovah of the opposite religion was proved to be a figment of the popular imagination; and there was no alternative between accepting the prophetic interpretation of history and resigning all faith in the destiny of Israel. Hence the recognition of Ezekiel, the last of the old order of prophets, who had carried their threatenings on to the eve of their accomplishment, was really a great crisis of religion. It meant the triumph of the only conception of God on which the hope of a better future could be built. Although the people might still be far from the state of heart in which Jehovah could remove His chastening hand, the first condition of national repentance was given as soon as it was perceived that there had been prophets among them who had declared the purpose of Jehovah. The foundation was also laid for a more fruitful development of Ezekiel's activity. The word of the Lord had 052 been in his hands a power “to pluck up and to break down and to destroy” the old Israel that would not know Jehovah; henceforward it was destined to “build and plant” a new Israel inspired by a new ideal of holiness and a whole-hearted repugnance to every form of idolatry.

5. These then are the chief elements which enter into the remarkable experience that made Ezekiel a prophet. Further disclosures of the nature of his office were, however, necessary before he could translate his vocation into a conscious plan of work. The departure of the theophany appears to have left him in a state of mental prostration.1313   In ch. iii. 12 read “As the glory of Jehovah arose from its place” instead of “Blessed be the glory,” etc. (ברום for ברוך). In “bitterness and heat of spirit” he resumes his place amongst his fellow-captives at Tel-abib, and sits among them like a man bewildered for seven days. At the end of that time the effects of the ecstasy seem to pass away, and more light breaks on him with regard to his mission. He realises that it is to be largely a mission to individuals. He is appointed as a watchman to the house of Israel, to warn the wicked from his way; and as such he is held accountable for the fate of any soul that might miss the way of life through failure of duty on his part.

It has been supposed that this passage (ch. iii. 16-21) describes the character of a short period of public activity, in which Ezekiel endeavoured to act the part of a “reprover” (ver. 26) among the exiles. This is considered to have been his first attempt to act on his commission, and to have been continued until the prophet was convinced of its hopelessness and in obedience to the divine command shut himself up in his own house. But this view does not seem to be sufficiently borne out by the terms of the narrative. The words rather represent a point of view from which his whole ministry is surveyed, 053 or an aspect of it which possessed peculiar importance from the circumstances in which he was placed. The idea of his position as a watchman responsible for individuals may have been present to the prophet's mind from the time of his call; but the practical development of that idea was not possible until the destruction of Jerusalem had prepared men's minds to give heed to his admonitions. Accordingly the second period of Ezekiel's work opens with a fuller statement of the principles indicated in this section (ch. xxxiii.). We shall therefore defer the consideration of these principles till we reach the stage of the prophet's ministry at which their practical significance emerges.

6. The last six verses of the third chapter may be regarded either as closing the account of Ezekiel's consecration or as the introduction to the first part of his ministry, that which preceded the fall of Jerusalem. They contain the description of a second trance, which appears to have happened seven days after the first. The prophet seemed to himself to be carried out in spirit to a certain plain near his residence in Tel-abib. There the glory of Jehovah appears to him precisely as he had seen it in his former vision by the river Kebar. He then receives the command to shut himself up within his house. He is to be like a man bound with ropes, unable to move about among his fellow-exiles. Moreover, the free use of speech is to be interdicted; his tongue will be made to cleave to his palate, so that he is as one “dumb.” But as often as he receives a message from Jehovah his mouth will be opened that he may declare it to the rebellious house of Israel.

Now if we compare ver. 26 with xxiv. 27 and xxxiii. 22, we find that this state of intermittent dumbness continued till the day when the siege of Jerusalem began, and was not finally removed till tidings were brought of the capture 054 of the city. The verses before us therefore throw light on the prophet's demeanour during the first half of his ministry. What they signify is his almost entire withdrawal from public life. Instead of being like his great predecessors, a man living full in the public view, and thrusting himself on men's notice when they least desired him, he is to lead an isolated and a solitary life, a sign to the people rather than a living voice.1414   A somewhat similar episode seems to have occurred in the life of Isaiah. See the commentaries on Isa. viii. 16-18. From the sequel we gather that he excited sufficient interest to induce the elders and others to visit him in his house to inquire of Jehovah. We must also suppose that from time to time he emerged from his retirement with a message for the whole community. It cannot, indeed, be assumed that the chs. iv.-xxiv. contain an exact reproduction of the addresses delivered on these occasions. Few of them profess to have been uttered in public, and for the most part they give the impression of having been intended for patient study on the written page rather than for immediate oratorical effect. There is no reason to doubt that in the main they embody the results of Ezekiel's prophetic experiences during the period to which they are referred, although it may be impossible to determine how far they were actually spoken at the time, and how far they are merely written for the instruction of a wider audience.

The strong figures used here to describe this state of seclusion appear to reflect the prophet's consciousness of the restraints providentially imposed on the exercise of his office. These restraints, however, were moral, and not, as has sometimes been maintained, physical. The chief element was the pronounced hostility and incredulity of the people. This, combined with the sense of doom hanging over the nation, seems to have weighed 055 on the spirit of Ezekiel, and in the ecstatic state the incubus lying upon him and paralysing his activity presents itself to his imagination as if he were bound with ropes and afflicted with dumbness. The representation finds a partial parallel in a later passage in the prophet's history. From ch. xxix. 21 (which is the latest prophecy in the whole book) we learn that the apparent non-fulfilment of his predictions against Tyre had caused a similar hindrance to his public work, depriving him of the boldness of speech characteristic of a prophet. And the opening of the mouth given to him on that occasion by the vindication of his words is clearly analogous to the removal of his silence by the news that Jerusalem had fallen.1515   These verses (ch. iii. 22-27) furnish one of the chief supports of Klostermann's peculiar theory of Ezekiel's condition during the first period of his career. Taking the word “dumb” in its literal sense, he considers that the prophet was afflicted with the malady known as alalia, that this was intermittent down to the date of ch. xxiv., and then became chronic till the fugitive arrived from Jerusalem (ch. xxxiii. 21), when it finally disappeared. This is connected with the remarkable series of symbolic actions related in ch. iv., which are regarded as exhibiting all the symptoms of catalepsy and hemiplegia. These facts, together with the prophet's liability to ecstatic visions, justify, in Klostermann's view, the hypothesis that for seven years Ezekiel laboured under serious nervous disorders. The partiality shown by a few writers to this view probably springs from a desire to maintain the literal accuracy of the prophet's descriptions. But in that aspect the theory breaks down. Even Klostermann admits that the binding with ropes had no existence save in Ezekiel's imagination. But if we are obliged to take into account what seemed to the prophet, it is better to explain the whole phenomena on the same principle. There can be no good grounds for taking the dumbness as real and the ropes as imaginary. Besides, it is surely a questionable expedient to vindicate a prophet's literalism at the expense of his sanity. In the hands of Klostermann and Orelli the hypothesis assumes a stupendous miracle; but it is obvious that a critic of another school might readily “wear his rue with a difference,” and treat the whole of Ezekiel's prophetic experiences as hallucinations of a deranged intellect.

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